LOS ANGELES – Bob Hope’s one-liners gently poked fun at presidents, blunted the sting of combat for American soldiers from World War II to the Gulf War, and ultimately made him the most revered of American comics.
Hope, who turned 100 on May 29, rode a genial wave of success in movies, radio and television to a position unique among entertainers. He died Sunday of pneumonia at his Toluca Lake home, publicist Ward Grant said Monday. His family was at his bedside.
As the 20th century’s good humor delivery man for U.S. troops, Hope took his show on the road to bases, field hospitals, jungles and aircraft carriers around the world, peppering audiences with a fusillade of brief, topical gags. One of them centered on former President Nixon and the Watergate scandal.
“I bumped into Gerald Ford the other day. I said, ‘Pardon me.’ He said, ‘I don’t do that anymore.'”
Hope’s humor lacked malice, and he made himself the butt of many jokes. His golf scores and physical attributes, including his celebrated ski-jump nose, were frequent subjects:
“I want to tell you, I was built like an athlete once — big chest, hard stomach. Of course, that’s all behind me now.”
“It’s hard for me to imagine a world without Bob Hope in it,” said Woody Allen, who cited Hope’s 1942 film “Road to Morocco” for pointing him toward comedy.
“The nation lost a great citizen,” President Bush (news – web sites) said Monday. “Bob Hope served our nation when he went to battlefields to entertain thousands of troops from different generations. We extend our prayers to his family. God bless his soul.”
He was “the best loved, most admired and most successful entertainer in all of history. He is quite simply, irreplaceable,” longtime “Tonight Show” host Johnny Carson said.
Steve Collins, an Army helicopter pilot who served in Vietnam, met the comedian when he ferried troops to one of Hope’s 1968 Christmas shows at an Air Force base.
“You knew where the guy’s heart was. He really felt for us,” said Collins, 56, of San Diego.
The English-born Hope began in vaudeville and ended up conquering every medium. When Hope went into one of his monologues, it was almost as though the world was conditioned to respond. No matter that the joke was old or flat; he was Bob Hope and he got laughs.
“Audiences are my best friends,” he liked to say. “You never tire of talking with your best friends.”
Along with family members, Hope’s longtime caregivers and a priest were present when he died.
“I can’t tell you how beautiful and serene and peaceful it was,” daughter Linda Hope told a news conference. “The fact that there was a little audience gathered around, even though it was family, I think warmed dad’s heart.”
“He really left us with a smile on his face and no last words. … He gave us each a kiss and that was it,” she said.
Hope earned a fortune, gave lavishly to charity and was showered with awards, so many that he had to rent a warehouse to store them.
Though he said he was afraid of flying, Hope traveled countless miles to boost the morale of servicemen. His Christmas tours became tradition.
He headlined in so many war zones that he had a standard joke for the times he was interrupted by gunfire: “I wonder which one of my pictures they saw?”
So often was Hope away entertaining, and so little did he see his wife, Dolores, and their four children, that he once remarked, “When I get home these days, my kids think I’ve been booked on a personal appearance tour.”
Hope had a reputation as an ad-libber, but he kept a stable of writers and had filing cabinets full of jokes. He never let a good joke die — if it got a laugh in Vietnam, it would get a laugh in Saudi Arabia.
On his 100th birthday, he was too frail to take part in public celebrations, but was said to be alert and happy — and overwhelmed by the outpouring of affection. The fabled intersection of Hollywood Boulevard and Vine Street was renamed Bob Hope Square, and Bush established the Bob Hope American Patriot Award.
“He can’t believe that this is happening and that he’s made it to his Big 100,” son Kelly Hope said at the time.
Leslie Towns Hope was born in 1903 in Eltham, England, the fifth of seven sons of a British stonemason and a Welsh singer of light opera. The Hopes emigrated to the United States when he was 4 and settled in Cleveland. They found themselves in the backwash of the 1907 depression.
The boy helped out by selling newspapers and working in a shoe store, a drug store and a meat market. He also worked as a caddy and developed a lifelong fondness for golf. A highly competitive golfer, he later shot in the 70s and sponsored the Bob Hope Golf Classic, one of the nation’s biggest tournaments.
Remembering how classmates had ridiculed his feminine-sounding name, Hope changed it to Lester when we began vaudeville. He later switched to Bob because it sounded “chummier,” he said.
He boxed for a time under the name Packy East — “I was on more canvases than Picasso” — and tried a semester in college before devoting himself to show business. He quickly veered from song and dance to comedy patter, and his monologue routine was born.
By 1930, he had reached vaudeville’s pinnacle — The Palace — and in the ’30s he played leading parts in such Broadway musicals as “Roberta,” “Ziegfeld Follies” and “Red, Hot and Blue” with Ethel Merman and Jimmy Durante. During “Roberta,” he met nightclub singer Dolores Reade and invited her to the show. They married in 1934.
After a few guest radio spots, Hope began working regularly on a Bromo Seltzer radio program. In 1938, he was hired by Pepsodent to create his own show, and that led him to Hollywood.
Paramount signed him for “The Big Broadcast of 1938,” in which he introduced the song that became his trademark: “Thanks for the Memory.”
Soon he was teaming with Bing Crosby in the seven “Road” pictures — “Road to Bali,” “Road to Morocco,” “Road to Zanzibar” and so on — playing best friends who lie, cheat and make fun of each other in comedic competition for glory and Dorothy Lamour.
In between, there were such pictures as “Cat and the Canary,” “The Paleface,” “Louisiana Purchase,” “My Favorite Blonde,” “That Certain Feeling,” “I’ll Take Sweden” and “Boy, Did I get a Wrong Number.” He made 53 films from 1938 to 1972.
In 1950, he entered television, and his successes continued. Even 40 years later, he could be counted on to pull in respectable ratings. He also appeared more than 20 times at the Academy Awards, first on radio and than on TV, as presenter, cohost or host between 1939 and 1978.
Hope started playing to troops well before the United States entered World War II.
He tried to enlist, but was told he could be of more use as an entertainer. He played his first camp show at California’s March Field on May 6, 1941, seven months before Pearl Harbor.
His traditional Christmas tours began in 1948, when he went to Berlin to entertain GIs involved in the airlift.
“It’s as if every one of them was his kid brother,” Dolores Hope once said.
His 1966 Vietnam Christmas show, when televised, was watched by an estimated 65 million people, the largest audience of his career. But his initially hawkish views on Vietnam opened a gap between the comedian and young Americans opposed to the war, who sometimes heckled him.
Later, Hope said he was “just praying they get an honorable peace so our guys don’t have to fight. I’ve seen too many wars.”
In 1990, he traveled to the Persian Gulf to entertain troops preparing for war with Iraq. Because Saudi Arabia bars female entertainers, he had to leave Marie Osmond and the Pointer Sisters behind in Bahrain.
Hope never had a regular straight man, but he worked often with crooner Crosby, starting in radio. Crosby helped make Hope’s nose famous as a “droop snoot” and a “ski run.” For his part, Hope replied: “Only in Hollywood could a meatball make so much gravy.”
Hope’s awards included scores of honorary degrees; special Oscars for humanitarianism and service to the film industry; the George Peabody Award; the National Conference of Christians and Jews Award; and the Medal of Freedom from President Johnson. He received honorary knighthood in England in 1998.
He was the author or co-author of 10 books, including his 1990 autobiography, “Don’t Shoot, It’s Only Me.”
In the mid-’90s, Hope played charity dates around the nation, but he slowed his schedule. What was billed as his last NBC special, “Laughing with the Presidents,” focusing on his long friendships with many occupants of the White House, aired in late 1996. His more than 60-year association with the network was said to be a record.
In recent years, his hearing eroded, although he refused to wear a hearing aid. He suffered recurring eye problems, and in recent years was unable to communicate.
Until increasing frailty slowed him down, Hope repeatedly pledged never to quit entertaining.
“I’m not retiring until they carry me away,” he said. “And I’ll have a few routines on the way to the big divot.”
Hope is survived by his wife; sons Anthony and Kelly; daughters Linda and Nora Somers; and four grandchildren. Funeral plans were private. The family also planned an Aug. 27 Mass and memorial tribute.
Staff writer Bob Thomas in Los Angeles contributed to this report.